October 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm (Nineteenth-century novel)

This afternoon’s Novel class talked about the relationship between Dickens’ ‘Autobiographical Fragment’ and David Copperfield; I tried to put together an argument about the secret (hidden, paradoxically, in plain view) of shame at the core of Dickens’s imaginative vision, and more specifically about the bodily or somatic quality of that shame: something to do with intimacy, with appetite, predation, physical contact. We also talked about the imaginative logic of ‘inversion’ that Dickens so often deploys, and I made the connection with the ‘dream work’ of Dickens, which often operates via inversion, substitution and transference. We discussed the repulsive physicality of Uriah Heep: as an inverted mirroring of David (both boys trying to get on via hard work, both hoping to marry Agnes etc., but one handsome and appealing the other revolting and despicable). We looked at descriptions of Heep’s physicality, his hideous ‘peeled’ quality, as if he lacked his outer skin, and his hands were mucus membranes. People weren’t persuaded by my the ‘COFFEE ROOM’ inversion in the ‘Fragment’

The coffee shops to which I most resorted were, one in Maiden Lane; one in a court (non-existent now) close to Hungerford Market; and one in St Martin’s Lane, of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood. [Forster, Life of Dickens, I:ii, ‘Hard Experiences in Boyhood 1822-4‘]

… but, to get to my point: I mentioned, I think, that this came up last year. And here is the link to the blog post from last year, where this is discussed a little more. [AR]



  1. Selena Collins said,

    Ok – so looking at what was said in last year’s blogging, I’m now wondering if the revulsion DC feels at the touch of Heep is more a homoerotic/phobic thing than simply a recognition of a ‘might have been’, less attractive version of himself? David’s fascination with Steerforth is certainly ‘crushy’… maybe the raw, serpentine sexuality of Heep is terrifyingly appealing and revolting at the same time?

  2. Adam Roberts said,

    I think this is a very interesting angle, Selena. If you don’t know it, you (and everybody else) might be interested in Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, a famous critical study of precisely the anxiety you’re talking about. To distinguish what she’s interested in from more straightforward homosexuality, she uses the term ‘homosocial’ to describe the close, desired-yet-feared connections between men. (Sedgwick’s chapter on Our Mutual Friend is especially good).

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